Top US policy-makers did a diplomatic dance with their South Korean counterparts on Wednesday in a display of solidarity intended to calm South Korean concerns about the American commitment.
In the highlight of a highly publicized visit to Seoul by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary Clinton announced what she said were new North Korea sanctions. The US-imposed sanctions, she said, would “increase our ability” to halt North Korea’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction along with other “illicit activities that helped fund their weapons programs.”
Analysts doubt, however, if new US sanctions will seriously go beyond those already imposed by the UN Security Council more than a year ago after North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test.
“I don’t really think there’s anything new,” says Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, noting that the UN sanctions already ban North Korea from importing or exporting weapons and also from importing luxury goods for the North Korean elite.
Confidence booster for South Korea
Mr. Han, who chairs the Seoul-based Asan Institute for Policy Studies, sees the visit to Korea by Secretary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates as needed to build up confidence in the wake of the sinking the Cheonan navy ship that killed 46 South Korean sailors in March. A South Korean investigation, in which experts from the US, Britain, Australia, and Sweden participated, has blamed the sinking on a torpedo fired by a North Korean midget submarine.
Clinton and Gates have to “get their money’s worth in coming here,” says Han, in reference to the media attention surrounding their visit.
He sees the visit – and elaborate military exercises planned for next week in waters off South Korea’s east coast – as needed to help raise confidence here after the UN Security Council issued a weak statement on the Cheonan attack, failing to blame North Korea directly. The visit “will have the effect of reassuring the Korean public about the US commitment,” he adds. “That is why Clinton has to talk tough.”
New sanctions 'don't look impressive'
Andrei Lankov, a Russian analyst who now teaches in Seoul, was not surprised by the US announcement of sanctions.
“They were expected especially when the UN Security Council chose to have a very cautious approach and did not introduce new sanctions,” says Mr. Lankov, based years ago in North Korea with the embassy of the former Soviet Union. “They don’t look very impressive,” especially since “very few countries sell arms to North Korea and those who do are not likely to be influenced by any decision made by the US.”
Gates and Clinton made a symbolic visit to the truce village of Panmunjom in the middle of the demilitarized zone that has divided the two Koreas since the end of the Korean War. For the first time in the long history of such visits to Panmunjom, 40 miles north of Seoul, the American visitors were accompanied by the South Korean foreign and defense ministers.
The talk seemed to edge carefully around a response to North Korea’s stated interest in returning to six-party talks on its nuclear program that were last held in Beijing in December 2008.
The US has appeared considerably more interested than South Korea at this stage in resuming the talks, but Clinton said afterward that returning to the table was “not something we’re looking at yet.” The Americans and the South Koreans agreed that North Korea had to show signs of a change in attitude. “To date,” said Clinton. “We have seen nothing.”
Worried about more attacks from North
Gates worried about the possibility that North Korea could stage more attacks – a concern also expressed Tuesday by James Clapper, the top Pentagon intelligence official, at Senate hearings in Washington on his nomination to become director of US intelligence.
With North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il building up his youngest son Kim Jong-eun as his successor, Gates sees the need for North Korea to present a strong appearance before South Korea and the world. That’s “something we have to look at very closely,” he said, “and be very vigilant.”
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the “two-plus-two” meeting was that it was the first of its kind between the highest American and South Korean foreign and defense officials.
Han says the meeting was brought about in part by talks between President Obama and South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, who wound up the day hosting Clinton and Gates at a state dinner. The two presidents, in summits in Washington and Seoul, he notes, “got along extraordinarily well.”
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